BJP needs makeover in East, Northeast

BJP needs makeover in East, Northeast

The central government has a serious disconnect with people in East and Northeast India; the imbroglio and protests over the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill and NRC give that away

The Centre tried to protect one set of people – Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. But the action negatively hurt the interests of the sons of the soil in the Northeast. Image/PTI

Why has the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB), an apparently well-intentioned legislation, wreaked such havoc in Bengal in the East and Assam and Tripura in the Northeast? The reasons, interestingly, are different in the two regions, even contradictory to each other. For, the public perceptions and interests are different.

The Centre tried to protect one set of people – Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and later Bangladesh. But the action negatively hurt the interests of the sons of the soil in the Northeast. While the West Bengal state government under the Trinamool Congress opposed the National Register of Citizens (NRC) since the initial days of its implementation, people in Assam were tentative.

But when the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill made it clear that all Hindu refugees who had settled in the East and the Northeast would be given citizenship rights, all hell broke loose. But why didn’t the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) foresee the effects that the Bill was going to have?

The answer, interestingly, is the same as the reason for the recent setback of the BJP in the three by-elections in West Bengal.

Cost of political inexperience

The BJP’s ‘Vijay Rath’ in Bengal and a large part of the Northeast – though never allowed a smooth run by Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee – suddenly received a big jolt as the TMC managed to win all the three seats.

Most interesting, of the three seats, the BJP’s defeat can easily be explained in Karimganj in the border district of Nadia, a heavily Muslim dominated area. But Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur, another border district, is a largely Hindu area, which deepens the mystery.

Most important, the BJP has also lost the Kharagpur Sadar seat in West Midnapore district – previously held by its state president, Dilip Ghosh, before he vacated the seat to contest for a Lok Sabha berth – by a huge margin.

A section of Bengal BJP insiders, including some Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) activists, say the reasons being cited for the loss are hardly the real issues. The main reason lies elsewhere. If there’s an iota of truth in what they say is eating away the vitals of the state BJP unit, it will be very difficult for the party central leadership to stem the rot.

The reasons for the loss being cited by both the TMC and the BJP are – too much stress by both the central leadership and the state BJP during the poll campaign on the Assam-style implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC).

It scared even a large section of Hindu refugees since reportedly 12 lakh Hindus were hit by the NRC process in Assam, even the loyal voters of the BJP in Bengal – Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan and now Bangladesh – started doubting the party’s intent. And the TMC immediately started campaigning that the BJP was actually anti-Bengali. The stress on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill came post-elections.

But it was too late.

Although Home Minister Amit Shah assured all Hindu refugees in the Rajya Sabha on December 11 that Hindus would not have to worry about their citizenship, the message has to be carried to even the remotest village and convince the people that the government was sincerely trying to protect their interests.

A visibly embarrassed Dilip Ghosh said after the by-poll results were out that the state unit had failed to sustain its Lok Sabha election success due to the party’s inexperience in Bengal politics. He, however, hastily added that the TMC’s violence on the poll day was largely responsible for the results.

The first part of Ghosh’s statement is significant – inexperience. Are leaders exported from Delhi and elsewhere in the Hindi belt in the swing of things in Bengal? Is the outfit being run with too much central control? Who decided to lay so much stress on the NRC? Who always dismissed summarily the mohalla-level workers’ warnings?

Well, inexperience in the politics of the east and the northeast, which is very much different from the politics of north India, should not have been ignored. For, the issues are different in these border states with a history of pre-Independence communal riots, Partition of India, steady economic downfall, tremendous population pressure following the 1971 war with Pakistan, social strife and incompetent governance.

So, the level of insecurity is abysmally high, especially in these states. For the ‘refugees’, it’s not only the question of survival against religious persecution; it’s also about roti, kapda aur makaan. While Hindu refugees from Bangladesh are not ready to go back at any cost because of religious persecution, Muslim refugees, or those who are popularly called ‘intruders’, will resist – violently, if needed – going back to the life of starvation and hopelessness.

Disconnect with ground realities

The violent protests that spread like wildfire in Assam and Tripura following the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill (CAB) on December 11 in the Rajya Sabha are also a symptom of the same disease. The central government has a serious disconnect with the people it rules in this region.

Protestors in Assam think that their long and bitter struggle to get their state free of ‘foreigners’ – both Hindu and Muslim – has come to nothing, since Hindu Bengalis have been given citizenship rights. In Tripura, the original inhabitants were overwhelmed by Bengali refugees from east Bengal after Independence that ended the 2,000-year-long rule of the Tripuri dynasty. Now, if the CAB is implemented, the original inhabitants’ claim to their land will be forgotten forever.

In Bengal too, the BJP, especially its central leadership and its representatives in the state, obviously failed to see the reality. Also, those who form the party ranks could never manage to convince their superiors that Bengal needed a different strategy to cash in on the public sentiment: The enemy is not the one who worships a different god. The enemy is hunger and loss of identity.

But the theory that Muslim fundamentalists have been pushing their operatives into the country as part of their demographic aggression plan and to create unrest has been slowly gaining ground in Bengal, especially after the blast in Khagragarh in Burdwan district in 2014. But the BJP leadership failed to carry the message (Read: Cash in on the fear of terror) to every corner of the state.

The disconnect between the Saffron leaders in Delhi and their men in the East and the Northeast is not a new issue. After the 2016 communal riots in Kaliachak in Bengal’s Malda, another border district, this author tried to contact all the leaders of West Bengal for their views and versions of the incidents as things were not very clear during the first few days.

While TMC leaders came on line promptly either to deny the incident or to establish that it was a minor local skirmish – although it was later found out that vehicles of the Border Security Force and a police station were set on fire by a mob – a BJP leader after much beating about the bush, admitted that he had not yet been briefed by his party men about the incident. He needed more time since law order was a state subject.

Probably, that gap has not yet been bridged till 2019.


(Debjyoti Chakraborty has for many long years held leadership roles in the print, television and online media. He writes on politics)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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